I Hope You Learned Your FaceApp Lesson

A viral sensation is born and battered

Sketchy FaceApp

 Lifewire / Joshua Seong

In the space of 24 hours, FaceApp went to from a fun, viral diversion to the latest milkshake duck (a meme that starts off making everyone feel good until they discover a sinister backstory).

There are already hundreds, if not millions, of neural network-aged photos of everyone from me (multiple times) to movie actors, TV stars, and world leaders. The aging filter is a stunning technological achievement. It doesn’t just slap some random crow's feet on your face and paste a wattle on your neck. FaceApp does some remarkable precision work that adjusts everything from your hair and hairline to your lips, eyelids, jowls, teeth, and more. I was so astounded by their work that I crafted a list of questions and sent it to the FaceApp contact email on their web site, hoping it would reach the Russia-based app developers:

  •  How did you develop it?
  • Were there any surprises?
  • What were some of the early missteps?
  • When did you realize you got it right?
  • How did you train the AI?
  • Why is it so accurate?
  • Are you surprised by the response?

Instantly, the email bounced back. Turned out there was no easy way to reach the company. In the meantime, FaceApp Old HD filter mania spread and spread, until someone read the company’s Terms of Service (TOS).

Lance Ulanoff normal and through FaceApp
The author in real life (on left) and after the incredible FaceApp Old HD filter treatment.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Surprise Face

As you probably know by now, using FaceApp grants the developers pretty much unlimited access to the content you process through the system. So your original photos, as well as the aged (and de-aged) ones, all end up essentially as property of FaceApp developers who can, according to the TOS (Terms of Service), use your content “for commercial purposes.” 

It sounded bad and because it’s Russian developers there was a collective freak out about security — and I mean freak out. Senator Chuck Schumer asked the FBI and FTC to look into the app. This is akin to using a hammer to swat a fly – overkill that’s unlikely to produce the desired result. The company eventually put out a lengthy statement that promised, in part, that they do not send photos back to Russia and most of what they keep on their servers is deleted within 48 hours.

While this may have offered some comfort to those who believe Vladimir Putin is making Ugly American Masks out of their FaceApp images, I’m not sure the FaceApp developers needed to put out a statement.

What Schumer and so many others forget is that Russian software engineers have a long and storied history of developing industry-leading software, especially in the security space (see Kaspersky). These developers are generally not part of the Russian state and do not work for Putin. They do want to make a lot of American dollars (see FaceApp’s pro version). Also, I do not notice Schumer calling for an investigation into TikTok, another, far more popular app that’s developed by Chinese technology company ByteDance.

Required Reading

I love when people “discover” objectionable or overreaching language in tech companies' terms of service documents, because they act like they've stumbled on the secret to cold fusion. “Look at these words! They are remarkable, insane, dangerous, and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before!” Which would be the case only if you never read another TOS.

Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and so many other apps and platforms that ingest content to present it to a network of subscribers or public audience have similar language. Twitter's, for instance, says that I basically grant them a “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license” to the content I post there.

Simple Truths

The possibility that FaceApp could use your photos in commercial enterprise takes it all, perhaps, a step further, but then it also reminds me of people’s overblown sense of self-importance. I mean, seriously, who really believes FaceApp wants to try to sell your Old Age photo to Doritos for advertising?

FaceApp is not a secret Russian probe or the enemy. Our own ignorance is. So next time you download an app that asks to use your photos to create content, read this first:

  • Read the Terms of Service
  • Apps are not for the public good
  • Life is transactional: nothing comes for free
  • Russia has a long history of exceptional software engineering
  • Your photos are not as interesting or valuable as you think
  • You’re not that interesting

And, seriously, read the Terms of Service.